Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Files Reveal Extent of Soviet Infiltration

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government has released newly declassified documents naming an American physicist now living in Britain as a top atomic spy for the Soviet Union during World War II. They describe the successful Soviet penetration of major U.S. government institutions including the White House, War Department and State Department during the Roosevelt and Truman administrations.

The physicist, Theodore Alvin Hall, 70, worked at the American nuclear weapons center at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1944 and 1945 and has never been prosecuted.

The declassified decoded KGB memos released Tuesday include one that identifies an agent that the U.S. government said was probably Alger Hiss, 91, a former State Department official who has repeatedly rejected allegations that he spied for Moscow in the 1930s and 1940s.

The two dozen Soviet agents named in the documents include Lauchlin Currie, a personal aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and May Price, the secretary to influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann. Many were investigated for espionage in the early 1950s, and were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but were never prosecuted in part because the government was not prepared to reveal that it had succeeded in cracking the Soviet codes.

In notes accompanying the intelligence intercepts, the National Security Agency identified Hall as the agent who was known to the Soviets as "Mlad,'' or "youngster,'' who helped the Soviet Union acquire plans for the atomic bomb. Soviet documents identify Mlad as one of two agents, together with the British atom spy Klaus Fuchs, who tipped the Kremlin about the first atomic test in July 1945 and provided a rough outline of the bomb.

Both the Justice Department and the FBI have refused to comment on their handling of the Hall case, on the grounds that the underlying documents are still classified.

Contacted Tuesday at his home in Cambridge, England, Hall refused to confirm or deny that he was Mlad. He referred a reporter to a statement issued by his lawyer saying that it would be "detrimental to [Hall's] health to be dragged into controversy over allegations regarding events said to have taken place half a cen for their roles in the spy ring.

Although the Justice Department has refused to disclose why it failed to prosecute Hall, former intelligence officials familiar with the investigation note that the government was not prepared to publicly disclose the existence of the intercepted Soviet cables up until very recently.

The NSA kept details of the so-called Venona program, which intercepted and decoded the cables, a tightly guarded secret even though the Soviets knew about the decrypting effort through their agent, Kim Philby, who served as British liaison to American intelligence in the late 1940s.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who has led congressional efforts to declassify decades-old secrets, including the Venona documents, said some unfortunate episodes of the McCarthy period of anti-communist inquiries might have been avoided had the government been prepared to disclose all the information in its possession during the 1950s.

"We would all have been much better served to get it all out there, and not go through the tortures of charges and countercharges,'' Moynihan said.

Other intelligence experts said the government's unwillingness to permit the Venona documents to be used in court had made it impossible to bring charges against many of the people named by a former Soviet agent, Elizabeth Bentley, during hours of testimony before Congress in the early 1950s.

They cited the case of Joel Barr, who is identified as a Soviet intelligence agent in the NSA documents. An American citizen, Barr returned to the United States several years ago after living in the Soviet Union for more than three decades.

Hall moved to Britain in 1962 to take up a post as a biophysicist at Cambridge university, but has been a frequent visitor to the United States, according to former colleagues, who have met him at a series of scientific conferences.

The statement released by Hall's British lawyer depicted him as one of the leading authorities in the world in the field of biological X-ray microanalysis.

The new batch of documents that were released by the NSA describe the scope of Soviet intelligence activities in the United States during the period from 1943 to 1945, citing dozens of American agents, including many whose identities have yet to be established.

Agents who have so far been named by the NSA include former War Department official William Ullman, former intelligence officials Jay Joseph Julius and Jane Foster, Harold Glasser of the Treasury Department, George Silverman of the U.S. Air Force, Nathan Silvermaster of the Board of Economic Warfare, and Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department.

All these officials were named as Soviet agents by Bentley during hours of testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and to the FBI, but most took the Fifth Amendment when questioned by Congress, refusing to incriminate themselves.

White died of a heart attack a few days after denying that he was a Soviet agent.

"The Venona documents should put an end to the argument about many of these cases,'' said John Haynes, a historian at the Library of Congress who has written extensively about Soviet espionage activities in the United States.

"This will be painful to many historians. Bentley has been mocked in many books as a blond spy queen. These documents support what she was saying.''